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What should fire up Utah, BYU and Utah State in 2022

The Utes, Cougars and Aggies had plenty of motivation in 2021, now what?

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Kyle Whittingham, Kalani Sitake and Blake Anderson

Utah’s Kyle Whittingham, BYU’s Kalani Sitake and Utah State’s Blake Anderson.

Deseret News composite photo

What value is there in honing an edge to a season, fighting to prove something, carrying a chip on the shoulder?

Well, it does help with focus and motivation. It can get into the heads of football players. And when it gets into the hearts, it can ignite all kinds of fire.

Take the case of BYU a year ago and Kyle Whittingham’s Utes just about every year.  You might as well count Utah State and Blake Anderson in that category last year when he came in and had to put his stamp on the Aggies program.

A year ago in Provo, it was all about trying to prove the 11-win season during all that COVID-19 mess in 2020 — no Power Five opponents on the schedule due to cancellations — was not a fluke.

You could say the “prove it” mantra worked last season with a 5-0 record against Pac-12 schools, including a win over the eventual champion Utah.

For the Utes, an emotional parachute from the deaths of two players cemented a real brotherhood, a purpose and focus for Whittingham’s team during the season. No one can measure exactly what burned inside the collective or the individual on that squad, but it helped lead to the first-ever Pac-12 championship, the first appearance in the Rose Bowl and a historic entertaining shootout with Ohio State that set up the returners as a top 10 team.

In Logan, Anderson was hired to elevate the program, both in recruiting and booster support, as well as to prove he could bring an explosive offense to USU. He did so with important talent from the transfer portal — an army of new bodies including his quarterback from Arkansas State, Logan Bonner. 

Anderson more than doubled the offensive output in scoring from 15 to 32 points a game and the Aggies won the Mountain West and a bowl game. That is program elevation to a T.

When the 2021 season ended, the final AP Poll showed Utah ranked 12th, BYU 19th and USU 24th. That had never happened before.

The Athletic’s Nicole Auerbach took note and made a daylong trip to Logan, Salt Lake City and Provo to write about why the state of Utah had so much success last football season.

2022 motivations

So, what now?

Well, the good news is there appears to be a reaping of a growing abundance of football talent from among Utah high school players. The state is producing, and even though all schools are importing more and more talent, the foundation is solid.

At Utah, Whittingham has to build on the Rose Bowl and name recognition, not only for recruiting but taking the next step. And what is that? Repeating as champions, winning —not just attending — the Rose Bowl and being the team that breaks through a long Pac-12 skid in the College Football Playoff. 

In other words, making a big splash on the national stage.  

This is a hook the Utes can use this season, putting a chip on their shoulders that they belong in the CFP. If the Big Ten is going to take four schools, rumored to be Oregon, Washington, Cal and Stanford, they’ve got another thing coming. 

In Provo, it is a two-part scenario of respect. Kalani Sitake will pilot BYU’s final season of independence, an adventure that began a decade ago with Bronco Mendenhall. The Cougars mantra has to be “Build it for the Big 12,” and BYU has to actually play that way. 

With an extremely challenging schedule, it will be very difficult to win eight games. Nine wins would be a success, but 10 straight weeks without a break will test every aspect of the program.

The second prong is BYU’s defense. Players and coaches are sick of taking a bad rap for lack of pressure, failure to get off the field, injuries and other challenges. These guys are ticked off and ready to prove their worth.

In Logan, Anderson’s first year may be a curse.  How is he going to outdo his debut? He came in and had to reassemble a team, inspire leftovers and inject new transfers. It worked like a charm in a season he should have had a losing record but finished 11-3. 

He returns seven starters on offense and six on defense.  He is rebuilding.

Anderson’s offense should want to prove 2021 was no fluke, that all those points and all the offensive fireworks are a part of his brand and that he can recreate it.

Defensively, the Aggies have to have a chip on their respective shoulders with the loss of rusher Nick Heninger and safety Shaq Bond.

USU must replace 30 touchdowns from departed pass-catchers. That’s a clarion call for playmakers to step up. Will they?

USU opened against UConn Saturday and the Utes and Cougars will be in Florida against Florida and USF, respectively, next week.  

Bottom line chants?

Utah: Elevate.

USU: Rebuild.

BYU: Belong.